Monday, April 21, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:10-12, Beatitudes 8 & 9, for Good Friday, "Blessed are the persecuted and insulted..."


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Tonight we come to the final two beatitudes. Both deal with persecution. The 8th Beatitude, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” returns to the blessing given in the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The blessing is already a present reality, though hidden from earthly eyes. The 9th and last Beatitude expands on the 8th, and brings them all to a close: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
It’s not hard to see how these last Beatitudes relate to Christ, as our Passion reading from Luke 23 narrates the multiple sham trials that Jesus underwent before Pilate and Herod, the false accusations, the vehement accusations, to which Jesus made no reply. Contempt. Mockery. Urgent cries for His death. Scoffing. Railing. Then weeping. Wailing. A crowd that had come to watch a spectacle dispersed in mute awe and dismay. The leaders and crowd could not bear Jesus’ righteousness. His piercing criticism of their hypocrisy, the disruption of the Temple economy of sellers and money-changers, His refusal to abide by the man-made traditions of the Pharisees—all of these were unbearable to the leaders. And on top of it all, He made the shocking claim to have God as His own Father, and to be the Son of God. They would not believe it even when He raised Lazarus from the dead. Miracles and signs were no persuasion. And so He was reviled, persecuted, and all kinds of evil was uttered against Him. On this day it poured out like a flood of lies and scorn; hatred that was in league with the devil.
Is it crazy, or impossibly optimistic, that under such oppressing circumstances, Jesus would say, “Rejoice and be glad?” What kind of joy could be found in the midst of such anguish, misery, and rejection? To find any joy or blessing in it, would mean to believe that circumstances be what they may, one still stands in God’s blessedness and favor. It would mean clinging to the promise of deliverance and a blessed future, even when every outward sign is cross and suffering. But that’s exactly what Jesus is telling us. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the shame of the cross, because His eyes were set on the joy before Him, and that we should likewise fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Such confidence filled Jesus as He hung dying on the cross, that He answered the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” His reward in heaven was ever so near, for he had believed in Jesus only at the 11th hour, but received the same undeserved reward of eternal life as all other believers. Even in His agony and forsakenness, when no hope was in sight, Jesus commended His Spirit to the Father, trusting Himself fully into God’s hands.
So also the Christian, who lives under the cross of Christ, and stands for truth and righteousness, and suffers for it, is not to look to their outward circumstances—whether good or bad, to prove God’s favor. Rather they must place all their hope in Christ crucified. To speak God’s Truth in this world will not win us the popularity of the world. It may even result in persecution. We endure hardship and persecution, not by our strength, but by Christ who lives in us. And yet as in every other good work, there lies certain temptations to our sinful flesh. Jesus and the apostles already were aware of such dangers, and so warned us in advance. What dangers or temptations? To exaggerate any difficulties or sufferings, either for the sake of sinful pride, or to nurture a sense of victimization, or indulge in self-pitying. Or, even to turn anything that doesn’t go our way, or even trouble we ourselves caused, into “persecution” against us. Neither is persecution something we proactively seek out, as if to create it for ourselves.
After the Beatitudes Jesus goes on at length to prohibit public displays of righteousness for the sake of getting attention, even false humility (Matthew 6:1-18). The apostle Paul goes on at length at the end of 2 Corinthians to parody himself by boasting in his own real sufferings and persecutions, only to make the point that nothing is commendable about boasting in ourselves. The only commendation that matters is from the Lord. And further, all his sufferings taught him of his own weakness and dependency on the grace of Christ, so that he might not become too proud. The apostle Peter says that it is a gracious thing, when mindful of God, to endure while suffering unjustly, but that there’s no credit in suffering for our own sin or for doing evil (1 Peter 2:19ff; 3:9-17). To actually suffer for doing good, you actually have to be doing real good or standing up for the truth. It entails a willingness to endure opposition while seeking to do good—but Peter calls us while doing so to honor Christ in our hearts and be ready to give a defense with “gentleness and respect”, so that those who slander may be put to shame because of our good behavior (1 Pet. 3:13-17). Follow Christ’s example by not answering hostility with more hostility or threats, but trust yourselves to God’s just judgment (1 Peter 2:21-24). Jesus did not goad on His accusers with boasting or self-righteousness or indignation, but was silent and trusted God.
Finally, the letter to the Hebrews encourages us not to fall into despair or weariness when we struggle against sin, but to remember that “we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:3-5), as Jesus in fact did. So while Jesus and the apostles warn us against taking pride in persecution or imagining difficulties—at the same time they speak comfort and encouragement to those facing real persecution for Jesus’ name’s sake, to bear through it trusting in God’s justice and final deliverance. And if we are tempted to doubt that God still loves us or could show favor to us in the midst of our distress, Jesus recalls for us the prophets who suffered the same way. His own example also provides us the proof that even under the worst of circumstances—death on the cross—God was with Jesus, and He was pleased with His humble obedience to God’s will.
Probably none of us here tonight has endured major or sustained persecution. In America we enjoy relative ease and comfort compared to most of the world. And yet the international persecution against Christians today is widespread. For millions, there is no need to invent or imagine any kind of persecution—it is a clear and present danger in their lives. The website Persecution.org, tracks present day persecution against Christian in 45 countries around the world, where Christians are “economically marginalized, denied education for their children, beaten, tortured, raped, imprisoned and sadly even murdered for their faith.” (http://www.persecution.org/about-us/the-problem/ accessed 4/18/14). Yet they live in the hope of Jesus Christ, even amidst oppressing spiritual darkness. The Light of Christ shines out all the more brightly in the contrast of the darkness, which shall never overcome it. These persecuted Christians need our prayers and our support, so that we do not forget that they are our brotherhood throughout the world, experiencing the sufferings and assaults of the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8-9).
But through any darkness, through any crosses or persecution, we do not lose heart, we need not be discouraged, because Jesus Christ went before us and has conquered sin and death by His cross. The kingdom of heaven is promised to us, and is ours in fact now, by faith in Him. The Kingdom that Jesus possessed and ruled over, even as almost everyone mocked His kingship, and laughed at His apparent powerlessness and weakness. But He is the King who we worship and adore, whose power is made perfect in weakness, and whose grace is strong enough to whether any storm, strong enough to lift us up from any fall, strong enough to fashion a new life for everyone called out of their sins and failures. So we too, can boast all the more gladly of our weaknesses, to know that the power of Christ rests on us (2 Cor. 12:9).

On Good Friday Jesus went beyond what seemed the last point of hope, into the blackness of His grave. Beyond all the physical and emotional tortures, who saw the sin that He bore for our sake? Who saw that He was the sacrifice for our sin? But here at Jesus’ cross, all the horrible torrent of hatred and sin dashed against Jesus, seeming to overwhelm Him. But His heart was steadfast (Psalm 57:7). Death was not the end of Him, but He rose in life and went before us to His reward. So we too can rejoice and be glad, for even sin, death, and the devil could not overwhelm Him, but rather in Him, death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54b). And so hope lives for every forgiven sinner—hope lives in Jesus Christ, and all who live in His kingdom. And every disciple who lives in His kingdom experiences a life shaped like Christ’s, a life shaped like the Beatitudes. And as we’ve seen in this series, our life is blessed—not for our own sake, but for the sake of Jesus Christ who lived for us and in whom we also live this cross-shaped life. In Jesus’ name. Amen!

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