The Sermon for
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church; Hoopeston, IL
Rev. James T. Batchelor
From time to time, I have heard the preaching of what many would call prosperity theology – usually on television. You are probably familiar with this theology as well. Basically, the preacher tells you that God wants His people to do well in this life. If you will follow God’s plan, you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise – your relationship with your spouse will improve – and your children will rise up and call you blessed. As we watch these preachers on our television screens, it seems as though there are thousands of people hanging on their every word. People like it when you tell them that God wants them to be rich.
Jesus had a pretty different message for the faithful in today’s Gospel. He said, “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Those preachers who preach prosperity theology seem to open the Bible a lot, but they never seem to get to those sections of the Bible like today’s Gospel. They never get around to discussing the world’s resistance to the main message of the Bible – who Jesus is and what He did to save us from our sins.
The fact of the matter is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ offends the world. There are many places in this world today where sharing the good news of Jesus Christ can lead to death. Many of you have heard the story of the couple that I met at the seminary who watched a mob kill their children because they had recently converted from Islam to Christianity.
The Voice of the Martyrs reports regularly on Christian persecution around the world. A few examples of this persecution include: the arrest of 15 Hmong Christian families in Laos; the beating of Pastor Mohan Babu and two other believers for holding a Vacation Bible School; the shooting death of Pastor Vic Vicera at his home in Mindanao; and many others. The world is quite ready to bring violence against God’s people.
We thank God that at least here in the United States, we don’t have to worry about the police or the National Guard breaking in on our service this morning and carrying us off to prison. Never the less, there is a form of persecution even here in the United States – this country with its freedom of religion. The public media often portrays Christians as ignorant, bigoted, narrow-minded, self-righteous fools. School children have been disciplined for distributing Christmas cards. Students have received failing grades for submitting art work and essays that included Christian themes. I sometimes wonder if I will spend time in a jail in the United States because I am the Pastor of a Christian congregation.
Today’s Gospel is a great comfort for persecuted Christians around the world. It tells us that the opposition of the world is no surprise to God. God is not up in heaven going, “O My! The world is persecuting My people. Whatever will I do?” No! God knows all about our situation. He understands that the world makes it hard to be a Christian. He understands that His faithful confessors will undergo hard times. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: [1 Corinthians 1:23] “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” Today’s Gospel is one of many places that tell us to expect opposition from the world. Today’s Gospel tells us that we are not doing something wrong when the world hates us for making a faithful confession of Jesus Christ.
Even with the knowledge that God understands, though, it is still hard to stand firm in the face of criticism. The temptation is always there for us to compromise God’s teachings in order to get along with the world. If the world gets offended because the Bible says that all are sinners, we might be tempted to water down the message of sin – perhaps even skip it altogether. If the world is offended by the gruesome nature of the cross, we may want to push the cruel torture and the pain of the cross into the background. It is easy to talk about God’s love and forget about His justice. It is easy to talk about Jesus as our buddy and forget about the day when He will come as the judge. We often want to water down the message of God’s Word just a little bit so that the world around us would not give us such a hard time.
Jesus warns that this attitude is very dangerous. He 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.” The worst thing that this world can do to us is end our physical life. But this world is not all that there is. There is a judge who has the authority and power to send both soul and body to the eternal punishment of hell. It is His teachings that we are watering down when we compromise our confession in order to fare better in this world. It is His name we are blaspheming when we give way, even a little bit, to the doctrines of this world.
So, have you stood firm in the faith even in the face of the world’s persecution? Neither have I. I must confess that in spite of my desire to remain faithful to the teachings of God’s Word, I regularly compromise my profession of faith. Once again the Law convicts with a standard of perfection that is so high that no mere human could ever keep it. Once again, the Law shows our sin to us and shows us our need for a savior.
That savior, of course, is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the only one who never compromised God’s Word. He is the only one who remained faithful to His calling. He remained faithful to His calling even when His calling led to the cross. He is the one who paid for our sins – even our sins of watered down doctrine – with his death on the cross. He faced not only the persecution of this world, but He also faced the combined guilt of all the sin of this world. Even then He remained faithful. With the victory He won with His death on the cross, He has purchased the forgiveness of sins for all people.
Christ’s resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven proclaim His faithfulness and His victory. They assure us that our debt is paid in full. They assure us that Jesus is preparing a place in heaven for us. They also assure us that Jesus is with us during every moment of this life. Jesus’ ascension assures us that He is with us even when we can’t see Him.
Just as Jesus promised us that He would always be with us, He has also promised that the Father would be with us. He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Jesus’ words do not mean that evil will never befall us. Instead, it means that when difficulties or persecution or even martyrdom comes, we are still under the Father’s care. It means that He is with us even through death. The Father will never overlook us or abandon us. For Jesus’ sake by the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, He will one day remove us from this world of persecution and take us to the eternal blessings of eternity with Him in heaven.
Jesus warned the disciples to remain faithful. Even so, the disciples all abandoned Jesus. At one point Peter even denied that He knew Jesus. In spite of their weak confession, Jesus took them all back. He even appointed them to lead His church. In spite of their failures Jesus blessed their ministry and the Word of God spread out over the known world.
The history of the early church tells us of the faithful Apostles. Of the eleven apostles who remained faithful to Jesus, only John the Evangelist died of natural causes. The other ten Apostles died as martyrs to their faith in Jesus Christ. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they persevered to the end.
In spite of our many shortcomings – in spite of our fear – in spite of our desire to get along with the world at the expense of Christ’s teachings, the Holy Spirit will continue to keep us in the faith. Just as the Apostles endured to the end by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will one day bring us to a blessed end here on this earth – only to take us to a blessed eternity there in heaven. Amen