Scripture: Matthew 10:24-39
Today’s scripture includes what are often considered some of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. One of these “hard sayings” is verse 34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Wait! “I have not come to bring peace…”But elsewhere Jesus says, in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
Is Jesus contradicting himself?
No… The key words here are, “not as the world gives do I give you.” Jesus came to bring a different, deeper, eternal kind of peace, different from the kind of peace that our world values—he came to bring what Paul calls in Romans 5:1 “peace with God.” And Jesus well knows that this “peace with God” will often bring unavoidable conflict and division and strife in our sinful world.
And so much of what Jesus talks about in Matthew chapter 10—often called his “Sermon on Mission”—so much of what he talks about is the conflict, divisiveness, and strife that his own disciples will face as they carry out his mission.
Indeed, I might even borrow some words from the great Meredith Willson and summarize the theme of this chapter as follows: “You got trouble, folks/ Right here in River City,/ Trouble with a capital ‘T’/ And that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for persecution.”
And that’s what these disciples will soon be facing: persecution. That’s part of what Jesus means when he talks about the “sword” that he came to bring… So be prepared for it, Jesus says. But also… Don’t be afraid of it, either.
So this sermon will explore the meaning of this “sword” that Jesus brings—i.e., the inescapable, unavoidable, and even God-ordained trouble that comes from following Jesus. I want to make three main points: Point Number One: Comfortable Christians like us are afflicted by our comfort. Point Number Two: Comfortable Christians like us have a real Enemy.Point Number Three: What do we need to remember when we’re in the midst of trouble?
Let’s begin by talking about my favorite Christian movie of all time, Chariots of Fire. Best Picture winner, 1981. The movie tells the true story of two British Olympic runners who competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. One of those runners is a Scotsman named Eric Liddell, a Christian, who takes time away from his missionary work in China to compete in the Olympics. His sister, meanwhile, is worried that the time he devotes to training for the Olympics will detract from his mission. He reassures her, however, that God gave him this gift of speed, and that he will use this gift of running fast to glorify God and to bear witness to his faith in Christ while he’s at it. Which he does… in inspiring ways.
But his commitment to Christ is severely tested, after he arrives in Paris for the Games and finds out that he’s scheduled to run… on Sunday.
He can’t do it. He won’t do it. Scotch Presbyterians don’t engage in frivolous amusements like running races on Sundays!
Now, I understand that most Christians don’t have that same conviction about whether it’s okay to do things like run in the Olympics on Sunday. Most of us wouldn’t have a problem with it. When I was a kid my mother wouldn’t let me cut the grass on Sunday… While I didn’t share her conviction about the Christian Sabbath, I loved the rule because I hated cutting the grass. “You mean you won’t let me cut the grass today? Oh, darn!”
But it doesn’t matter whether we would make the same decision as Eric Liddell. For him, running in that race would have been a sin. In Romans 14:23, in a discussion about whether Christians can eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul writes, “If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning.” 1
So Liddell refuses to run the race… Even in the face of severe pressure from the British Olympic Committee… from millions of patriotic British citizens who are counting on him to run… and worst of all, even from his own future king, the Prince of Wales, who tells him that sometimes we must make a sacrifice out of allegiance to our country. To which Liddell replies, “Sir, God knows I love my country. But I can’t make that sacrifice.”
Like the old TV show and movie about Elliot Ness, The Untouchables,Eric Liddell was untouchable. Imagine fearing God so much that no human enemy—and no other threatening situation or circumstance in life—is able to make you feel afraid… or at least to make you so afraid that it could prevent you from doing what the Lord wants you to do. Imagine being able to say—and to really believe—that what matters most in this situation is not what other people think, or what other people will do to me, or even how much this will hurt me… The only thing that matters is, “Will I continue to be faithful to my Lord?”
I want to be a person like that! I want to be untouchable like that.
And Jesus wants his disciples to be “untouchable”like that, too!
Listen to what he says in verse 28 of today’s scripture: “And 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.”
In other words, don’t be afraid of the very worst thing that someone can do to you… Don’t be afraid of the worst thing that someone can say about you… Don’t be afraid of the worst thing that can happen to you…
And don’t be surprised when the “worst thing that can happen to you” does happen… After all, Jesus says in verse 24, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master…” In other words, Jesus says, they did it to me, and since you belong to me, they’ll do it to you, too!
Okay, but at this point I would forgive you for thinking something like this: “Thanks, Jesus. I’ll keep that in mind the next time I face the extreme persecution you’re describing in this sermon. The truth is, all these scary things you’re describing haven’t happened to me, and probably will never happen to me. Not even close! I mean, I get that things like this happen to other Christians in other parts of the world—in fact, there’s more persecution going on right now than ever before in history.” Even Pope Francis, ten years ago, said that the persecution facing Christians today is so severe it may even be a sign that the Second Coming will happen soon! 2 Pope Francis said that.
But persecution on that scale isn’t happening to us right now… Thank God! I know we’re far from a “perfect union” here in the United States, but our Constitution has protected our freedoms, including the freedom of religion, pretty well after all these years! That’s only by God’s grace, by the way, not because we deserve these protections!
It’s been eight years since I was personally shaken by a terrifying event in the news. You may recall the headlines. Twenty-one Christian men from Egypt were abducted by ISIS terrorists. They were led in chains down to a beach in Libya… on the Mediterranean Sea. The terrorists took turns beheading each one of these Christian men for one simple reason: because they confessed their faith in Jesus Christ. These men—these Christians—could have saved their lives, if they had simply renounced their faith. Then they could have walked away. But they refused. ISIS, of course, leaked the video online, which I didn’t dare watch, of course… it’s horrifying.
But it’s a fact that before the sword came down on each one of their necks, they shouted praise and thanks to Jesus their Lord.
What courage! What a witness! The words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 10 surely comforted these men as they endured this trial and headed to their deaths!
But what about me? What about us? We are, by contrast, so comfortable as Christians!
What comfort are Jesus’ words to us “comfortable” Christians today?
Do Jesus’ words—which, in context, are intended to encourage and comfort disciples who face “trouble with a capital-T, which rhymes with ‘P,’ which stands for persecution”… do his words have any relevance even for us who are, in general, very comfortable Christians?
The good news is that, yes, they do!
The first thing I’ll say is that, biblically speaking, comfort itself tests our faith every bit as much as when someone holds a sword over our heads. Comfort afflicts Christians just like persecution afflicts Christians. You probably don’t believe me now, but I hope you will before I’m finished. In Deuteronomy chapter 8, for instance, Moses warns the people of Israel, as they’re about to cross over the Jordan and enter the Promised Land… he warns them: When you grow wealthy in the land that God is giving you, he says, “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’” 3
We forget about God, Moses says, “who gives [us] the power to get wealth…” 4
The author of Proverbs 30 tells God, in the prayer of verses 8 and 9, “Give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” 5
Comfort lulls us into forgetting God, forgetting what he’s done for us, forgetting our complete dependence on God for everything.
I’ve told you before about my friend Tracy Fleming, the operator of the Chick-fil-A in Lovejoy, Georgia, on the south side of Atlanta. For years, he’s made trips to China, to help train and equip pastors in the underground church in China—at some risk to his safety, freedom, and life.
Once, he told me about a conversation he had with a Chinese pastor there, who described to him the intense persecution that he and many of his fellow pastors and Christians were facing. Upon hearing of this suffering, Tracy told this pastor, “I’ll be praying that the Lord will put an end to the persecution and suffering of you and your fellow Christians.” And this pastor looked at Tracy with a flash of anger and indignation and said, “What makes you think that God wants to put an end to our persecution and suffering? God is using our persecution and suffering to do powerful things for God’s kingdom in China!”
And Tracy and I both had the same thought—as Tracy was telling me this story many years ago… The very lack of persecution in America, and in other wealthy democratic countries of the West—the comfort that we often feel as Christians—is likely one reason we so often fail to see revival here; why we instead often see so much spiritual deadness, so much spiritual dryness, so little spiritual fervor, so little spiritual fruit—even in our churches.
So by all means, spiritually speaking, comfort afflicts us Christians.
In my own life, I’ve rarely if ever grown closer to Jesus when I feel most comfortable. No, it’s usually when I’m undergoing some really painful, difficult trial, and I’m on my knees begging for the Lord to help me. Comfort, in my own experience, is an enemy that afflicts me.
That’s Point Number One.
Point Number Two: We have a real Enemy…
Speaking of enemies, notice Jesus’ words in verse 23: “When they persecute you in one town…” Or in verse 25: “how much more will they malign…” Or in verse 26: “So have no fear of them…” Or in verse 28: “And do not fear those…”Who are all these “they’s,” “them’s,” and “those’s”?
They’re enemies who want to harm and persecute and destroy the faith of Jesus’ disciples—who want to prevent them from fulfilling their mission to bear witness for Christ.
And you may say, “Right… And we don’t have those kinds of enemies working against us!”
But we do… But… we… do… We so easily forget this fact, but if we are in Christ, we certainly do have enemies. To see this, let’s please recall Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:11 and 12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
By the way, only someone like Paul could say, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” and be taken seriously… because aside from Jesus himself, surely no one in the history of the world “wrestled against flesh and blood” more than Paul! His entire apostolic ministry seems to be a series of wrestling matches with flesh-and-blood opponents. In 2 Corinthians 11, beginning with verse 23. Paul said that he experienced
far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.
These were all things that flesh-and-blood human beings did to Paul. He goes on to say that he was in “danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city… danger from false brothers.”
You get the point, I hope: It seemed as if Paul were “wrestling against flesh and blood” human beings all the time, yet somehow he still says—in spite of this—that we Christians donot wrestle against flesh and blood. What does that mean?
It means that we have a more ultimate Enemy—the devil—operating behind all mere human enemies, and this Enemy has an army of fellow demons at his disposal, all of whom—like Satan, their chief—were created by God as angels in the heavenly realms—to love, serve, and glorify God. Yet these angels chose to rebel against God—as Adam and Eve and the rest of mankind would later do; they chose to sin. And now, the Bible warns repeatedly, they oppose us. They work against us. They are the ones against whom we ultimately wrestle…
Our real enemy, the devil, is no less committed today than he was back in the first century… no less committed to harming or weakening or destroying the faith of Jesus’ disciples—no less committed to preventingus present-day, “comfortable” disciples from fulfilling their mission to bear witness for Christ and from enjoying God and glorifying God… no less committed to robbing us of the joy that we ought to have in Christ.
If Paul’s words are true, then, to say the least, our lack of flesh-and-blood enemies in the comfortable Western world hardly proves our lack of real enemies… or Enemy. It’s just that our real Enemy often uses other weapons in his arsenal besides the direct persecution, and violence, and betrayal that Jesus describes here. Those weapons don’t often work in our context.
But one weapon that does work is comfort.
Just last week, I saw an interview online with a musician named Kerry Livgren. You probably don’t know the name. But he was lead guitarist and chief songwriter for the ’70s rock band Kansas. And you likely do know some of his songs: “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind.” Here’s a man who at one time was in the upper echelon of the rock world—he had fame, fortune, the adoration of fans around the world… he played concerts in stadiums… Then in 1979, Jesus got hold of him. And he soon walked away from the band. It was nothing personal, and he remains friends with its surviving members… but Jesus was calling Livgren to do something else. And he followed Jesus.
And in last week’s interview, Livgren even said that another founding member of Kansas had become a Christian… so that actually makes two other members of the band who got converted in part through Livgren’s witness. So praise God!
But what most impresses me—as a lifelong wannabe rock star myself—is this: Kerry Livgren put his money where his mouth was—or where his faith was. He proved that the faith he professed with his mouth, that what he said he believed about Jesus, he really believed. He showed in the most tangible way possible just how much he treasured Christ.
He proved that he treasured Christ more than the millions of dollars he surely walked away from as a result of leaving this very successful band.
But make no mistake: Treasuring Christ in this way is a test of faith… an ongoing test… And it’s incredibly hard. That “sword” that Jesus mentions in verse 34 doesn’t risk dividing us merely from the closest relationships that we treasure; it also divides us from anything that we treasure more than we treasure Christ. And that’s hard. That hurts.
But Jesus wants it all; he wants everything;He demands every part of our lives; he wants exclusive allegiance to him alone.
We Methodists acknowledge this truth whenever we pray the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer:
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
What we say in this prayer is, “You’re in charge, Lord. Take whatever you want. In fact, take it all! Do whatever you want in my life.”
Our Enemy, the devil, certainly doesn’t want us to pray a prayer like that. He doesn’t want us to live lives of submission to God like that… And he will do his best to stop us! And that’s Point Number Two…
Point Number Three: Even us “comfortable” Christians face plenty of trouble in life. So what do we need to remember when we’re in the midst of trouble?
Two important things… And it starts with some of the most reassuring words and promises ever uttered… found in verses 29 to 31:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?
Sparrows were small, plentiful, commonplace, and—from the world’s perspective—almost worthless birds. Even if you eat them, they don’t provide a lot of meat. But Jesus goes on…
And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
Can you imagine? God cares for these seemingly insignificant creatures so much that each one is somehow included in his plan for our world… so much so that he knows when each one dies, he not only knows about it, he’s somehow accompanying these creatures as they fall. Jesus goes on…
But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.
Hairs accumulating in the drain of the bathtub are far less significant than even sparrows falling to the ground, yet each one is so significant to God, God has assigned each a number! If each hair is so significant, how significant is the rest of your body and mind? Can you even imagine? Finally, Jesus says,
Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
This is an understatement, of course. For one thing, as Jesus has already said, sparrows are incredibly valuable to our Father. So it stands to reason that your life would have great significance even if your life were merely more valuable than “many sparrows.” If God has assigned every hair of your head a number, then you are unbelievably valuable to your Father!
But let’s be clear: God has assigned an overall value to your life. Care to put a price on it?
You can’t because it’s of infinite worth to God!
Do I exaggerate? No! Because God purchased your life at an infinite cost: the life of his Son Jesus, who is infinitely valuable to our Father! “[F]or you were bought with a price,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:20. And that price is incalculable!
So that’s what you’re worth to God our Father and his Son Jesus!
Can you even comprehend it? No wonder Paul says in Ephesians 3:18 and 19:
And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. 6
So… when you, as a disciple of Jesus, experience trouble in this life… which you will, Jesus says repeatedly… It can’t be because our Father doesn’t love you very much. It can’t be. As I say, we can’t even comprehend his love for us!
It must mean that even the trouble we face will be used or transformed by our Father for our ultimate good.
Not only that… It must mean that the life God gives us, with all of its trouble, will be better for us, ultimately, than any alternative life in which we don’t experience the same trouble.
It must mean as bad as our trouble is, what is waiting for us on the other side of that trouble is better for us than what we would receive if we didn’t face the trouble.
And as I’ve said many times before, it’s not hard for God to transform our trouble into something good because, after all, he took the worst trouble the world has ever witnessed—his Son being nailed to a cross—and transformed it into the greatest good our world has ever seen—which is eternal life for all of us who believe in Christ!
Finally, here’s the last thing we need to remember when we face trouble in our lives: See verse 38. Another “hard saying” of Jesus: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
We remember of course that the cross was, when Jesus spoke these words, the most shameful and agonizing means of execution imaginable. What Jesus is saying here is hard… And to do what he says is to invite trouble in our lives… But hold on… According to Jesus, “taking up our cross” is not only hard. There’s actually great encouragement here, if we allow ourselves see it: We take up our cross in order to do what… to follow Jesus.
In other words, Jesus is telling us that we don’t merely get trouble in this life for the sake of our faith. What we do we also get?
We get Jesus. If we are facing trouble, good news! Jesus is already there, in the midst of the trouble! Because we followed him in order to get there!
If we find Jesus in the midst of trouble, then guess what? We go to the trouble.
If Jesus is in the trouble, then we go to the trouble! Because he’s there! Where else would we go? Jesus is there, and he’s worth everything to us. We treasure him, we want to be with him, so we will go where he leads! And it will be worth it!