Pastor Thomas McCracken and Rob Sturdy inspired this sermon.
Imagine learning of a promised Messiah when you were a child. You hear stories of this Messiah who one day will step on earth and set the captives free, banish the wicked, seal the sick, and rule not with military might but by mighty, unending love. Yes, this Messiah will bring salvation to the sinful, comfort to the discomforted, healing the hurt, and mercy to the merciful.
Now here you are, an adult. You're at the base of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere, looking at this rather pain-looking Nazarene who claims to be this very Messiah, this Son of God. You listen to Him preach, hoping beyond hope that now is the time, that this is THE day. He starts, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God."
Imagine your excitement! Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is promising great rewards! Imagine being one among hundreds in the audience who is tired of being ruled over, taken advantage of, mistreated, and being viewed as a stranger in your own promised land! Imagine what these words mean. And, if these first seven rewards are not grand enough, you sense a climax. You that He is saving the best for last. That is what great teachers do, right? They start low and build up the momentum. Already we have been promised heaven, comfort, the earth, satisfaction, mercy, and the ability to see God and receive the royal title of being children of God—promises NO OTHER religion is ever able to offer.
So, here you are, on cloud nine, excited about this last reward like a child that saved the biggest gift under the tree. Jesus Christ unpacks the last gift in verse 10. Here it is, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
I am sure someone in that crowd who was looking at the guy next to him either thinking or saying, "Jesus said, 'Blessed are THOSE who are persecuted' not ME! He was not looking at me when He said, "Those." He may have been looking at YOU or that guy over there with the priestly clothes on, but not ME. He said 'THOSE who are persecuted!'"
Yes, He means someone ELSE being persecuted, not me.
There is no doubt Jesus knew what was going on in the minds of this people who were shocked and struggling with this final reward of persecution, presented as if it were a good thing!
Do not miss what Jesus does. In the first seven beatitudes, Jesus uses the words "they," "theirs" and "those." After these seven, He reveals the ultimate reward is...persecution. If that isn't enough, He settles His eternally loving eyes on the crowd and brings personalization with this simple, specific, one syllable word—"you."
Jesus saves this beatitude for last. Why? He weeds out the fence riders, the non-committal, and the lukewarm. Anyone who would step up into Christianity after hearing they would lose their families, their homes, their jobs, their property and their very lives...anyone who would shoot their hand up and shout, "SIGN ME UP!" after Jesus said, "Blessed are the persecuted," is someone who can change this world, someone who is serious, someone who sees the life-changing potential in the message and in the messenger, Jesus!
Remember what I shared before this sermon began. Today's reading comes right behind the text we had last week where Jesus chose disciples, who, from their fishing boats, left their nets and followed Jesus.
Though Jesus has sent the personal invitation, some of us today are still in our own little boat. We're still holding on to our nets, our old way of looking at life. Yes, we want the good promises of God. We certainly want the blessings we've heard about here in Matthew 5, but we're not moving.
Persecuted? Us? Now hold on there! That just isn't pretty.
"I can't be persecuted," someone is thinking. "I can't speak to my grown son about Christ. He'll kill me with a roll of his eyes. He's grown up, after all. He has his own life. When he was nine or ten, sure, I invited him to church. We sat in a pew, made it through worship, which, honestly, wasn't always so easy, and we drove home in silence. What could I have said, anyway? I believe in Christ? He is first in my life? And then the teen years came and really it became such a hassle."
"I can't be persecuted," someone else is thinking. "I can't tell my forty-something-year-old anything anymore, especially about faith. We can mosey around the word "God" now and then; that's somewhat safe; but who I am to talk about Jesus? I am not choosing a fight over this. You can only go only so far these days, right?"
"I can't be persecuted," a third person is thinking. "I can't speak about Christ there! It just isn't done! It just isn't polite! My faith is personal, quiet. I don't need to go off flapping my jaw to my buddies, my colleagues, my friends at school, or people I'd like to impress. Come on, it's 2017! Religious freedom! Tolerance! Respect for someone else's beliefs! Plurality! Everyone has a right to believe what they want to! My faith is my business. And really, come on now, they'd KILL me if I spoke up for Jesus."
Hear Jesus again in verse 10. He says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing what is right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs."
Do what is right. Be persecuted.
The political scene beats on our doors, even if we hang signs on them that say "Leave us alone." It is easy to be swept up in partisanship, even if you don't want to. Political pulls have flooded our nation, invaded the very air we breathe. Here are two very common examples using two very common words these days—progressive and conservative. I mentioned air. Breathe through this. I mean peace, and here is what I mean specifically about partisanship.
Progressives are silent on the defenseless plight of the unborn, the most innocent of human lives. We should gasp at this silence. Conservatives can be very loud on this point, but they're often very quiet on social issues of poverty, the dispossessed, and the harassed. And if you want an example of recent history, behold the Civil Rights Movement in which white conservatives were mostly AWAL. We should gasp at this silence.
Don't jab one side because you stand with the other. That's unworthy. What is worthy is your understanding that Jesus Christ makes followers stand apart from political movements. The Christian does not follow solely the progressive or the liberal. You are not a Progressive Christian. You are not a Conservative Christian. You are a Christian. You are apart from political movements. You are above political movements. Here's why. Listen. The follower of Christ will be more conservative than the most conservative person you know. The follower of Christ will also be more liberal than the most liberal person you know—and eventually no one will like you! THAT'S being persecuted! That's being persecuted not for political party—and some of us really need to get over those old lines and focus not on lines but on Christ's love. Stop being a Republican. Stop being a Democrat. Be a Christian! Stand up! Stand out from any political party's bend.
Hear Jesus in verse 10 one more time. He says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing what is right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs."
Jesus clearly says the reward for being persecuted is Heaven. The promise of Heaven has been deeply criticized over the last hundred years, beginning with philosopher Karl Marx. Marx says, "Heaven—future reward—future bliss—future righting of wrongs—is an illusion. It's an illusion of happiness that placates those who can't have real happiness right now. In other words, this whole heaven ideology makes them content with their miserable condition because one day, this foolish lot thinks, they'll be "blessed."
Do you think Marx is right? I don't think he could be more wrong.
We talked about MLK in the middle of the month. Let me expand on that. The Civil Rights Movement had an evangelical gospel that proclaimed an evangelical heaven, an evangelical future of righting wrongs, an evangelical future salvation, and an evangelical future restoration. That didn't make those in the movement lazy, did it? No (and this is no surprise), the movement MOVED them! It animated them! It charged them! It aligned them!
And this is what one of the movers said, and here I quote MLK Jr. "One day, we shall have our freedom, but not only for ourselves; we are also going to appeal to your heart, your conscious [so] that we win you in the process. And our victory will be a double victory."
MLK had a state of mind where things would be good, oh yes, but they wouldn't be good unless he brought us along with him. A double victory, that is what he's talking about here. There's a gain not for some; there is a gain for all of us. Who do you think taught him this?
MLK says he learned of this double victory from Jesus. Jesus was the persecuted Son of God. Jesus was persecuted because of what he said about God. Jesus was persecuted Son of God because of how He radically lived for God. Jesus was the persecuted Son of God because of how He loved others. Jesus was the persecuted Son of God because He cared for others. Jesus was the persecuted Son of God because He freed others. His persecution—His death on the cross—earned a double victory, not just eternal life, but eternal life with you.
Here's something important. The persecution of Jesus is twofold. (It's a double victory.) One, Jesus' persecution gives us the promise of restoration. Said simply, God sent His Son to the cross so that you can be right with God. And two, God sent His Son to the cross because He wants to win you in the process. See, God wants your heart, your love, and your devotion. He seeks in His Son's persecution to win you over, to collect you completely, to claim you entirely, to put His eternal stamp on you.
When God wins your love, He'll have a double victory. Listen. He will have a double victory because He will not have a Kingdom without you.
Fiery child, live a life worthy of persecution. The rubber meets the road today. Don't be average. Don't sit still. Too much is on the line, the line you need to cross because of the cross.
Here is the challenge you can meet. Boldly proclaim who God is. Boldly proclaim His death and resurrection in your life. Boldly proclaim His forgiveness of him. Boldly proclaim the Lordship of Jesus in how you treat other people.
You are called. You are claimed. You are Christian. It's time to stand and say, "Give me Jesus."
Rise as you are able. "Jesus, we give ourselves to You. Bless us in our persecutions so that we can be how Your Father designed us to be—loving, able, and responsive. Amen."
Many of the old spirituals still sung today originated during slavery. White slave owners encouraged the singing of these songs because it promoted Christianity which taught enslaved Africans to be long-suffering, forgiving, and obedient to their masters. Little did the slave masters know these songs would become much more. Booker T. Washington said, "They breathe a childlike faith in a personal Father and glow with the hope that the children of bondage will ultimately pass out of the wilderness of slavery into the land of freedom." Just as God used many things in the story of Moses and the children of Israel to deliver His people, He used these songs in the hands of slaves in great bondage as an instrument of liberation.
As we prepare for the sermon, may you feel the spirit to "steal away"