March 25, 2012

Misplaced Anger

First, before I go any further, didn’t Cody do a great job last week?  I’m really anxious to hear from him next Sunday.  He has one of the most difficult passages of this whole series to unpack for us then.  No pressure, Buddy.  Cody actually said a lot of good things as he was unpacking Jesus’ exhortations to leave it all behind and follow Him.  A couple of the statements he made that really stood out to me were that we can expect hardships in this life as a result of believing in Jesus, and again, the presence of the kingdom will not bring an absence of hostility.  This sermon series is supposed to be looking at the hard sayings of Jesus, but perhaps we need to spend a few minutes with the hard sayings of Cody.  If you’ve been around the church very long, you’ve heard things like that before.  We’re told on occasion—although not many occasions—that the Christian life will result in some hardships.  But, such messages are often quickly followed with the reassurance that the good times are going to far outweigh the hard ones.  I mean, we don’t want to turn anyone off to the message of the Gospel by making it sound like it’s going to be really hard to live, do we?  People who spend much time talking about or thinking about or preparing for hardships and persecutions and troubles have a title: paranoid.  Have you ever known anyone who was paranoid?  Who seemed to feel like the world was out to get them?  Who were convinced that the devil was under every rock and that the world really did hate them?  I mean sure, in other parts of the world and in other historical eras there were folks who hunted down and did harm to orthodox believers, but not in this nation and at this time.  Folks worried about that are crazy.  Aren’t they?

Do you know what the worst thing that can happen to someone who’s paranoid is?  They get it right.  But come on: the world’s not really out to get us.  Is it?  Well, let’s think about it this way.  One of the things our culture does a really effective job of is casting a vision for the ideal life.  And what’s the ideal life broadcasted by our culture?  A life of plenty and comfort.  It’s a life in which we have the most of everything:  The most money.  The most power.  The most square footage.  The most horsepower. The most beauty.  The most…stuff.  Let’s be honest: this is a really easy image to buy into.  I mean, who doesn’t want to have it all and never have to worry about…anything?  Who wants to work because you have to work?  Who wants to do anything because you have to do it?  The ideal life would be one in which I only do the things I want to do and I hire out the rest out to someone else.  Our culture does a really good job of convincing people to buy into this life (not that it’s very hard mind you) and to give up and sacrifice much in order to achieve it.  But, this isn’t the only picture of the good life out there.  The Bible offers a picture of the ideal life as well.  This version, particularly as expressed in the New Testament, is that the ideal life is wrapped up in faithfully following Jesus.

There’s just one little problem: the Bible’s image of the good life and the world’s image of the good life aren’t really complementary pictures.  In fact, it might be more accurate to say that are warring pictures.  They are diametrically opposed to one another.  One says essentially that you should make yourself into a god.  The other says you should bow your knee to the One True God.  The one calls you to hang tightly to everything, letting go of only enough to increase your holdings.  The other calls you to be ready and willing to give up everything in order to serve someone else because it’s not yours anyway.  There’s really not much room here for middle ground.  Well, because of this state of open warfare, the faithfulness required to achieve the good life laid out in the Bible isn’t really all that popular in the world.  I mean, as long as we’re limiting our faithfulness to doing nice things for the people around us without trying to get them to buy into our private religious views things are okay.  But, when we start doing weird things like living sacrificially and taking strong moral stances and standing up to defend those kinds of acts in the public square, the world puts away the good cop act and gets a little tougher.  As a result, living the Bible’s prescribed ideal life is almost certainly not going to be one of comfort and plenty.  Wait a minute.  Do you mean to tell me that those paranoid Jesus people who go on and on about the world being out to get us are right?  Well, not entirely, but yeah, they might be on to something.

As a matter of fact, Jesus said as much Himself in the next hard saying we are going to examine together this morning.  This one comes from the Gospel of John.  Open your Bible to John 15:18.  Let me read these words for you and then we’ll see if we can make sense out of them.  “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.  If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.  But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”  Now jump with me down a few verses to 16:1: “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.  They will put you out of the synagogues.  Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.  But, I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.”

This is one of those sayings of Jesus that isn’t actually all that hard to understand what He is trying to say.   In fact, it’s pretty clear what He’s saying: The world hates Me and if you’re My follower, it’s going to hate you too.  Or perhaps more simply: The world hates Jesus, but sees us.  Well, He sounds here like one of those paranoid Jesus people.  Actually, He’s the worst of the bunch…He is Jesus.  No, what He’s saying is clear.  What’s hard here is whether or not we believe Him.  Now hold on just another minute here.  I would never say I don’t believe something Jesus said.  I mean, He’s…Jesus.  We’re in a…church.  You just don’t say or think something like, “I don’t believe Jesus,” when you’re in a church.  It’s not right.  Maybe so.  But we don’t have to answer that question with words.  Our lives do a pretty good job of that for us.  And the suggestion of our lives is that we like the world’s picture of the ideal life and we’re not all that enamored with the idea of the world hating on us for getting too stuck on the Jesus stuff.  So we’ll wave the Christian banner here in this country where that’s a pretty safe flag to fly.  We’ll talk the talk of the faith here in a community where a pretty good chunk of folks give at least lip service to some kind of generalized good feelings about God.  (That doesn’t do much good for them, but it does keep them off of our backs.)  But is that the sum total of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus?  Doing the Jesus thing when it’s pretty easy?  Again, most of you know the answer to that question: no.  That’s the easy question.  The harder one is this: if everywhere we go the world seems to like us, if we don’t experience any persecution from the world in this life, could it be that it recognizes us still as one of its own?  Don’t answer that now.  Instead, let’s take a few minutes and walk through what Jesus says here.  Because the reality is that the world hates Jesus, but sees us.  What’s it seeing?

Jesus begins by simply stating the truth.  If we feel like the world hates us, we can take some solace in the fact that it hated Him first.  Grammatically here, Jesus’ statement is presented as what is called a conditional clause—one that begins with the word “if.”  This is a proposition whose truth or falsehood depends on a certain set of circumstances.  For example, if it rains, the baseball game will be cancelled (and the parents will have a little party).  The truth or falsehood of the cancellation of the baseball game is dependent upon whether or not it rains.  In some situations, though, the likelihood of a certain outcome is much greater than another.  In this case we might change the wording of our clause a bit.  For instance, if there are thunderclouds massing in the distance we might say, “When it rain, the baseball game will be cancelled,” or perhaps, “Since it’s going to rain, the baseball game will be cancelled.” When school was cancelled on account of the invisible snow storm a couple of weeks ago, the district officials who made that call were confident enough in the predictions of the weathermen that they changed the conditional sentence, “If it snows, school will be cancelled” to the more certain, “since it’s going to snow, let’s cancel school.”  Still, most of us would probably use the word “if” there because that’s a more common phrasing in our vernacular.  This meaning that you have to know the context of a phrase in order to understand how certain the “if” is.  In the Greek, though, there were multiple different ways of expressing a conditional thought and which one you chose depended upon the likelihood of the outcome.  In other words, a writer wanting to express a conditional with a strong possibility of truthfulness would use a certain grammatical form called a first class condition.  For a first class condition in Greek grammar, when the context allows it, the word commonly translated “if” can be translated as “since,” thereby assuming the truth of the proposition.

Now, before I leave you thinking that you accidentally came to a Greek grammar lecture instead of a worship service let me explain why all of this is important. Every time you see the word “if” in your translation here, Jesus is using a first class condition.  From an interpretive standpoint, I believe the context allows for all of them to be understood as near certainties.  In other words, instead of reading this as: “If the world hates you, know that it hated me first,” we can and arguably should read it as: “Since the world hates you, know that it hated me first.”  So why is this important?  Because we don’t want to think about the world hating us.  And so we’re clear, this is not the rejection language hatred that we spoke of a couple of weeks ago.  This is the emotional hatred we are more apt to picture when we hear the word.  We don’t want to think about the world perceiving us with such an emotion on the table.  I mean, hatred is a strong word.  When you hate someone, you actually want the worst for them.  We live today in a culture of love and good feelings.  Being a “hater” is one of the worst things a person can be these days.  No, we don’t want to think about hatred.  And so we hear something like, “if the world hates you…” and we start justifying.  “Well, the world doesn’t really hate me.  I don’t have any enemies.  I get along pretty well with everyone I meet.  Who in the world hates me?”

Do you see where we have gone?  We’ve taken Jesus’ hard words and made them slightly less hard.  But in doing so, we run the risk of missing the warning and getting shocked by reality when we meet it.  The reality, friends, is that the world does hate us.  “Yes, but who in the world hates us?” we want to know.  We want to go find the person or group and make things right with them.  Let me clarify this. There may not be a single person you know who hates you like this.  Don’t start questioning the motives of all the people you know because of this sermon.  Instead what Jesus is talking about here are the systems of the world (and the people attached to them) which are dedicated to the advancement of the world’s purposes, the world’s ideal life; systems and people who have a dog in the fight of seeing that life realized on a worldwide scale.  As we said a bit ago, this life is bound up in the exaltation of self, the satisfaction of every desire, and the pursuit of power at the expense of those not strong enough to achieve it.  Those systems and the people attached to them do in fact hate Jesus.  They hate Him because He is a glaring indictment of their impotence, inability, and futility.  Following the systems of the world some people have made for themselves huge fortunes and have achieved amazing amounts of power.  They have few whims which cannot be entertained.  Jesus then comes along and says: “Yeah, that was all a huge waste of time, you’ve accomplished nothing, you don’t really have anything of value, and in the end you’re going to lose it all unless you give it all up and follow Me.”  No wonder people in His day hated Him.  They hated Him so much, in fact, that they killed Him in the most horrible way they could devise.  But now that He’s gone, they didn’t achieve their goal.  Jesus’ message is still here.  It survives in His followers.  As a result, guess who becomes an object for the hatred?  Us.  The world hates Jesus, but sees us.

“But wait!” someone wrestling with this idea might protest.  “What does the world see in me?  I’m not really all that different from the people around me.  Why should they hate me?”  Here’s the thing: once we have started following Jesus and have experienced the rebirth as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven that comes with this radical reorientation of our allegiance, we’re not part of the world anymore.  If you are a follower of Christ you are different from the people around you who aren’t.  Your allegiance is to a different God.  You think differently.  You have different habits.  Your relationships with people are different.  You pursue different goals.  You view the world through a different set of lenses.  And for the most part, because of the lingering effects of the Judeo-Christian worldview that characterized the first 150 years of this nation, this doesn’t cause any evident problems.  All the same, your very existence as a follower of Christ—when you are doing things rightly—serves as a constant indictment of the places in their life that are at odds with the mores of the kingdom.  And again, because of the cultural restraints present in this country, the reaction is most often a quiet jealousy that burns up their hearts because they see that you have the thing they’ve spent their lives searching for to no avail.  Sometimes this is tinged with a smug pride that they don’t have to deny themselves the pleasures of this world as you do in order to toe the line of your God’s endless list of rules.  All the while, though, as you stand as a Spirit-filled representative of Christ and His kingdom, you are shining a light into the darkness in which they’d prefer to hide, all things considered.  And they hate you for it.  Actually, that’s not quite right.  They hate Jesus for it, but they see you.  The world hates Jesus, but sees us.

Jesus is in fact very clear on this point.  It is Him who the world is hating.  It is the things He stands for.  But, because He is not close at hand to receive the hatred anymore, we are the next best thing.  And so the world lashes out at us.  This gets us down to the really hard truth in all of this: the Christian life, the life following in the footsteps of Christ, the life spent pursuing the image of Christ every single day is not an easy thing to do.  It’s hard.  It’s hard because there are times when it seems like everything within us wants to run in the opposite direction and indulge every carnal desire we have.  It’s hard because when we are doing it right, the world comes in to break up the party by attacking us in every conceivable manner.  Hear this well, friends, because it’s an important principle that often gets completely overlooked in the lives of most believers in our culture: as followers of Christ, we should expect persecution in this life.  The Bible never promises us ease and plenty in this life.  It does promise us persecution, though.  And let’s be clear on this.  We won’t suffer because we’re doing good things.  The world loves us for the good we do.  Neither does the world hate us because we go to church.  Although culturally unpopular, it doesn’t hate us for our moral stances or even for trying to encourage other people to believe like we do.  Here’s why the world hates us: because we are bearers of the name Jesus.  It hates us because we are associated with Christ.  We’re not hated because of anything we do, but because of the name by which we are known.  The world sees the name and seeks to treat us in the same manner as it treated our Lord.  Indeed, Jesus faced some of the most gruesome suffering ever encountered by a human being.  Why on earth should we expect to receive better than He did from the world?  If we really look like Him, we should expect nothing less than what He got.  This is why folks whom God has called to martyrdom throughout the centuries have rejoiced in their sufferings and even in their death—because they knew they were being received in the same manner as their Lord.  Near the close of his second letter to his protégé Timothy, Paul gave him a rather somber warning: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  Paul doesn’t say that just some or even most followers of Christ will face persecution.  All will.  Because Jesus was.  The world hates Jesus.  Why do you think there have been so many attempts to redefine Jesus or to discover the “real” Jesus based on whatever is culturally popular at the time?  Because the world doesn’t want to receive Him as He was.  The world hates Jesus, but sees us.

As we draw near the end here, let me share with you why all of this is important.  Let me explain why these hard words are worth proving.  First, knowing this hard truth, wrapping our minds around this hard saying of Jesus can prevent us from the spiritual pride of thinking that God is most interested in our health and our happiness.  Let me let you in on a little secret: while God isn’t jumping for joy when you are going through hard time physically or financially His concern for your feeling good and having more than the basics to sustain life is so overshadowed by His concern that you become fully reflective of the image He designed you to bear and the advancement of His kingdom as to actually make it seem as if He doesn’t care about your health and happiness at all.  When we let seep into our worldviews the world-generated idea that feeling good and having plenty and the absence of hard times are obvious signs of God’s pleasure, when those times do come, we start to panic and think that God hates us or that we’ve somehow sinned and aren’t of use to the kingdom anymore.  Friends, if the devil can get us thinking in this direction, he’s won.  Consider for a minute the story in John 9 about the man born blind.  The disciples asked Jesus whether that man or his parents had sinned that he had been born blind.  Do you see their thought process?  God’s pleasure is shown through health and happiness.  This man had neither and so he must not be an object of God’s pleasure.  Jesus responded that their worldview was broken.  This man was blind because God actually had a purpose for the hard times he was facing.  And this purpose was the advancement of His kingdom.  The advancement of God’s kingdom is far, far more important than our relative health and happiness.  And when we grasp this truth, all of a sudden the hardships we face—whether they are caused by us or come directly from a hostile world—are much more bearable because we know that God’s purposes which are for our good are going forward and that when we bear up under the strain with Spirit-enabled faithfulness, we are walking in the footsteps of Christ.  The world hates Jesus, but sees us.  What does it see?

The other reason knowing this is so important is that this knowledge can give us the courage we need to keep walking when things do get tough.  Because, they are going to get tough.  How do you think the apostles held up under the incredible sufferings and persecutions they faced as described in the book of Acts?  Read down the list of what Paul suffered for the sake of the Gospel on behalf of a hostile world sometime in 2 Corinthians 11:23-30.  How do you think he endured all that?  Because he knew the truth Jesus spoke here.  Remember the end of the passage again.  Jesus assured the disciples that a day was coming when they were going to be tossed out of the synagogues which would have been the equivalent of social ostracism today.  I heard a story a few weeks ago about a guy who had kind of dabbled in faith for a while, but who finally got serious about it.  He started really trying to do things right.  And he was.  He started living out his faith in public places.  And do you know what happened?  He was persecuted for it.  And not persecuted by some ambiguous, unnamed source out in the world.  He was persecuted by two of his closest friends.  They derided him and harassed him and treated him like he was carrying the plague because…are you ready for this…he prayed where they could see him.  Because he didn’t laugh at the same jokes anymore.  Because he didn’t talk about the same things and drink the same amount of alcohol and spend as much time doing the things he had done before.  His closest friends persecuted him.  Because of the name by which he was now known.  But although it certainly felt like it since he was the immediate object of the persecutions, they weren’t hating him.  They were hating Jesus.  But they saw him.  The world hates Jesus, but sees us.

Students, particularly those who have made professions of faith and been baptized in the last year and a half: this is especially important for you to know.  Even in an environment as ostensibly tolerant of Christians and Christianity as the Dinwiddie school system might be, you are still living as aliens in a hostile world.  Know well that as you seek to actively live out your faith and act differently from your friends who aren’t also identified as followers of Jesus—and I hope you do—you are going to face persecution.  You are going to be made fun of.  You won’t get invited to some parties.  Some of your friends are going to distance themselves from you unfairly.  Some of your teachers might grade you using different standards than some of your peers.  But when you arm yourselves with the knowledge we have gained today, you already know that it’s coming.  You know it, you can prepare for it, and you can stand up under it because the Holy Spirit is going to be right there with you the whole time giving you not only the strength you need, but even the words you need to say should a situation arise in which you need to say them.  All the while you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that even though it’s coming at me, it isn’t aimed at me.  Because the world doesn’t hate you.  It hates Jesus.  The world hates Jesus, but sees us.

So what do we do with all of this, then?  I’ll tell you what we do.  We walk through this world with confidence and our heads held high.  We walk with confidence rooted in the strength and power of our Savior.  We walk with high heads because of the privilege it is to be known by His name.  We walk with courage to do the things we already know are right because no matter how hard things get, we will have the Spirit walking with us through the storms.  We walk with humility because we recognize the surpassing greatness of our Lord and that we are not walking any roads He hasn’t already trod.  We walk with joy and gladness because we are bearing witness to the coming kingdom of God in order that all might have the opportunity to enter its spacious borders and become co-citizens with us.  We walk in all these ways because of the knowledge and by knowledge faith we have from Jesus’ words.  Friends, let us not seek out and pursue suffering and persecution.  The kingdom of God is no place for masochists.  Let us instead pursue with a relentless focus a life of faithful obedience to all the commands of our Lord because of our intentional decision to see His plans comes to pass and His character known throughout the earth, this is, because of our love for Him.  Let us make this pursuit unconcerned with the obstacles that might lie in our path, unburdened by the attempts this world will make to slow us down and hamper our pursuit even if those attempts should be made by our closest friends.  Let us stand, not as those who are paranoid, but as those who know the truth and are emboldened by it.  And the truth is that hard times are part and parcel with the life spent faithfully following Jesus.  Because the world hates Jesus, but sees us.