Sermon on Matthew 10:5a, 21-33, for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost 2020 (A), "Turning Fear into Courage in the Kingdom"
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Matthew 10 Jesus sends out His apostles on the mission of His kingdom. Life in His kingdom is not an easy mission—quite the opposite—He promises it will be hard. Expect it. Thinking of quitting or surrendering? Jesus speaks courage to your heart! He transforms fear into courage in His kingdom. Let’s see how.
In verses 26-33, Jesus uses the word “fear” four times. Three times it’s: “Don’t fear”; and once it’s to “fear God.” What’s there to be afraid of? When you stand up and live for Jesus, you will be misunderstood and rejected, like Him. You can potentially face mockery, hatred, persecution, and in the worst cases, death. Many fears in life are exaggerated and blown out of proportion. But some are perfectly real. But whatever the fear, Jesus calls: “Fear not.”
Virtually no one is trying to kill us because we are Christian. We live in a free country. But that kind of extreme persecution is happening in many countries around the world. Libya, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia (see www.persecution.org ) To all for whom this fear is real, Jesus calls: “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” (Matthew 10:28). Death is the very worst that enemies of Christ’s kingdom can do to His disciples. But no more than that. Truly death is an enormous price to pay. Any human death is a tragedy. John Donne famously said: “any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” Then is death by persecution too great a price to pay to be a Christian? To be a disciple of Jesus?
To be robbed of life is truly a terrible price. To have God’s gift of our body, our heartbeat, our life and breath stolen away...murder is terrible. Joseph Stalin, the communist dictator, coldly announced that “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Sadly there are many on this earth, slaves to the devil’s lies, who think life is cheap and think nothing of killing. It’s fearful that people can think that way—but fear is turned into courage in Jesus’ kingdom when we choose to value every human life, in word and actions. But if the cost of discipleship is up to and possibly including the cost of our very life, is it still worth it to be a disciple of Jesus? Those who wear the military uniform are often told that when they join, they sign a blank check of commitment to the country, up to, and including their own lives, if necessary. Not everyone is called to make that commitment to their country, but disciples of Jesus are called to it. Is it worth it?
Jesus does remind us to “count the cost”, but there’s no question here that His emphatic answer is YES, it is worth it! Even death for Jesus’ name—they can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Fear turns into courage when we know that even though our bodies be destroyed in this life, we have the resurrection promise of the perfect heavenly body. For all their hatred and misunderstanding, the enemies of the cross cannot end us or Jesus’ kingdom. They may wish to end Christianity, to silence us, or stop the spread of the Gospel. The world may even hate the message. But anyone setting themselves up as enemies of God is setting up for failure. Fear turns to courage when we remember there is no one who opposes God and finally wins. And that Jesus promised the gates of hell will not overcome His church. He already overcame the sinful world for us. It’s His victory in the end. So no matter the cost, we want to be on the winning side in the end! The worst they can do to us; the worst they did to Jesus, is death. But He defeated the grave! When you have already “gone nuclear” and your biggest weapon fails, what’ve you got left? The devil has no greater weapon than death, and though he kills our bodies, he cannot destroy the soul. Our courage in the face of the devil’s great failure at the cross.
Notice again what Jesus said: “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”. “Destroying in hell” makes us think about the devil. But that’s not the devil Jesus is talking about. The devil can’t destroy both soul and body in hell. Hell is his prison, and God’s going to destroy the devil in hell! And besides, God never commanded us to fear the devil, but only to fear God! God can destroy both soul and body in hell. Eternal punishment is real, but it’s not in the hands of the devil, but in the hands of the Holy and Righteous Judge. Only God can judge and sentence.
Fears of martyrdom aren’t our biggest worry here in America. But remember our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith. Learn about their situation, pray for and support those Christian brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted, so they know they’re not alone or forgotten. Many good charities support them. Our personal fears are more likely about simply standing up and witnessing about Christ. Jesus said: “everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).
Has the fear of men ever silenced your confession of Jesus? Afraid of being mocked, laughed at, or excluded? If we have, Jesus’s words about acknowledging Him or denying Him before men, and He will acknowledge or deny us before the Father, brings us to our knees in repentance. Why do I fear men, not God? How can I be so weak when so many have endured much worse, and stood firm? Lord, how could I ever turn my back on You, when You are always so faithful and good to me? But when we’re weak and repentant Christ turns our fear into courage by forgiving our sin like He forgave Peter and restored him to a new boldness and a new mission. Remember we don’t transform ourselves, but God, whose power is made perfect in weakness, does. He turns our fear into courage.
Fear of men and what they can do can paralyze us from speaking the truth in love, or even just doing what is right. Even small fears like being left out or made fun of, can make us shrink back. But fear of God is very different. Fear of men usually overestimates our fears. But God is all powerful—we can’t overestimate His power. So does that make Him uniquely frightening or terrible? Some do think of God in that way, are frightened of Him—because they misunderstand and distort who God is or were taught badly from somewhere. But though God is all powerful, fear of the Lord is to have a reverence and respect for His holiness and His power. It is to be in awe of the fact that God is all powerful—and surpassingly good. To know that the God who can destroy the body and soul of His permanent enemies in hell—that this same God wants to turn His enemies into friends. The fear of God is actually joined to courage and faith. Courage to speak the truth. Courage to witness to Jesus. Courage to face death without fear.
Jesus’ kingdom and His work on the cross turn enemies—sinners captive in their sin—into friends and children of God. There is forgiveness with Him, which is a primary reason to fear God. To know that He uses His holy and awesome power for our good. That He is merciful and forgiving when it could easily be otherwise—and we’d deserve it. Fear of God is the right kind of respect that knows our place before the Creator of everything, and the only One who ultimately has the responsibility to judge every human that ever lived. This positive fear of the Good and Merciful God takes place of the cowardly fear that runs from men, or self-silences when we should say in the light and proclaim on the housetops. This positive fear of God fills us with courage to stand in His light and His truth, and bear up under our crosses.
God’s kingdom overturns lies. It overturns the comfortable defenses we build around our sins. It overturns the excuses we tell ourselves to justify wicked behavior. It overturns death itself. And so the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh fight against God’s kingdom. But guaranteed, God’s kingdom will have the victory. And so Fear not! Do not be afraid! Don’t fear them! Because Christ speaks courage and life to your heart, to drive away the fear. This courage comes from knowing that we’re on God’s side. Courage comes from seeing other brothers and sisters in Christ be bold and compassionate in expressing their faith, and putting it into action, as Christ was. Courage comes from being baptized into Christ Jesus, so that you can say truly and with confidence: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Yes, whatever fears we face, whether death, or ridicule, or loss of worldly respect, or whatever else we might fear—these all pale in comparison to the goodness of what God has promised. When we count the cost, and consider whether even the worst outcome—death—is worth following Jesus, the answer clearly is Yes. To be forever loved and accepted and known by the God who created us and saved us, is greater than any fears of temporary rejection and alienation in this life. To be forever whole, in body and soul in God’s eternal home, with no pain or suffering or sorrow, is greater than any fears of temporary pain and suffering, and far greater than the eternal suffering of heaven. To be given courage and hope for every day, by having a reverent fear and awe of our victorious and merciful and loving God, is greater than any fears of what man can do to us. Yes, the goodness of what God will give us, and already has forgiven us, is all the reason and more to say: “Fear Not!” In Jesus’ Name, Amen.