I sat down to write my message for this morning on Thursday I had been wrestling with the passage we read today which is full of some difficult sayings of Jesus. And that day I was blessed by my daily devotions… you see in Nicky Gumbel’s opening comments, I found a great summary of what Luke is talking about in the passage we had read to us Luke 12:1-12…
“The message of Jesus is the most powerful message in the world. It is good news. It changes lives. It changes cities and cultures. Yet it is also a message that provokes opposition. God equips you to pass on this message by giving you the Holy Spirit”.
In this passage Jesus talks of being faithful in the light of persecution: he talks of overcoming that very human response of fear so we can walk the cross road following Jesus with courage and trust.
We are working our way through Jesus journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel, a journey that takes up the central third of the gospel narrative (ch 10-19), a Journey narrative that focuses on Jesus teaching on what it means for us to follow him. Today we are moving into a new block of teaching, over the past few weeks we’d seen that Jesus was heading more and more into conflict with the religious and political leaders of the day and in light of that he calls his disciples and us to be faithful. He focuses on two things that should encourage us; Seeing present trials and challenges in light of eternity, and a correct understanding of the nature of God. We can be faithful because of who God is and that God will bring his plans and proposes to fulfilment in Jesus Christ.
The passage opens with a temporal link ‘meanwhile’ we’ve moved on in the narrative to a new situation but it’s not a clean break with what has gone before. We are told that there is a great crowd of many thousands, and while the crowd in the earlier part of Luke’s gospel are always seen as a benign presence, here we are told they were trampling on one another, it is a bit more threatening. Maybe it was a bit like the crowds for euro 2016, a mix of the ecstatic and eccentric Icelanders and their joyful synchronised clapping but also those elements of Russian and English fans spoiling for a fight. Because in the previous passage we’ve been told there are elements who think that Jesus is motivated by evil, others who are demanding that Jesus show them greater and greater signs, and that the Pharisees and scribes are there questioning and hoovering waiting for Jesus to slip up so they can pounce. In Luke’s gospel when there is a crowd Jesus turns to his disciples and teaches them about true discipleship. Jesus is aware that the pressure of the crowd can cause us to compromise our faith, either the pull of popularism, to simply keep on pleasing the crowd or the push of persecution to appease the crowd. Both pressures have historically caused the church to compromise their faithfulness to Jesus and push and pull at our faith: The pull to conform to the standards and social norms of today and the push against our faith, at least to keep it to ourselves.
Jesus starts by calling his disciples to be on guard, not against the unruly crowd, but the unruly tendencies of their own heart; to be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees. Yeast was added to dough to make it rise but in Jewish thinking it was also a metaphor for sin that once it is entertained can infect the whole mixture or dough. In the passage we looked at last week Jesus had used a play on words to challenge the Pharisees, he had said they had missed the love of God and others but loved the good seats in the synagogue and the respectful greetings in the market place. It all had to do with external appearance not what was at the heart. Here Jesus sums that up with the word hypocrisy. It was a mask an act they put on. Jesus calls us to be wholeheartedly committed to him, that we are to be people of integrity, our outward actions and reactions, how we live and how we love should be a reflection of what is at our heart, our external life should be a reflection of our internal life, regardless of who is watching.
Jesus finishes his warning about this with a series of three sayings about what happens in secret will be made known. It has a present real life application: eventually the mask will crack or we will drop the act and people will see what is really at our core, what we believe will become known, in times of great pressure to conform or persecution is definitely one of those times. It also has an eternal application as well. As we move through this passage there is a time when we will stand before God and what is in the heart will be made known. King David is an example of that in scripture. He is known as a man after God’s own heart, he has integrity, now sadly he blows it big time, he is not perfect, but even in that case when confronted with his sin he repents and turns back to God. We have his powerful prayer of confession in psalm 51.
Jesus moves from the pull of popularism to the push of persecution. He tells his disciples, they are not to fear those who can kill the body, but rather fear him who can throw you in to hell. Ok relax Jesus isn’t getting into the old hellfire and brimstone preaching here and neither am I. firstly Jesus is a realist, he knows what is going to happen to his followers that they like he will face persecution and death. He tells him in verse 11 they will be bought before synagogues rulers and authorities, there is going to be pressure to deny Jesus. Church history is full of persecution and martyrs and Jesus is saying don’t fear that, even though they can and will kill you, rather fear God.
Of course fear can be understood in two ways, the first is the crippling fear of being afraid, scared, petrified, it’s the sort of fear that can cause us to turn away from trusting Jesus Christ can cause us to deny him. The other fear is the idea of respect and honour. Jesus here is NOT saying we should be afraid of God because God’s got the bigger stick, rather our respect for and honour of God should enables us to be faithful to him, cause in the end he is the one who cares.
This is where our understanding of God’s character comes into play. Firstly in this passage it is the only place in Luke’s gospel where he addresses his disciples as my friends, I tell you my friends do not be afraid… He’s speaking out of love and compassion. But also telling them that God cares for them. God is not angry or vindictive, God cares. God cares for the sparrows, that in the market place are a dime a dozen, they are still sold to be eaten but he cares for them. When I worked at the chapel at Auckland University I used to sit outside and have my lunch, and sometime just sit out under the trees and pray, and the sparrows would come round for food or because they wanted to join in the prayers. At a glance they all looked the same but if you looked at them they were all unique and different, you had to look for it. God invests such creative energy into these sparrows uniqueness. He cares for us so much more. He knows our most intimate detail and need, he even knows how many hairs are on our head. Ok there is room for a joke here, but I’m not going to make it… and maybe some of us are just trying to make God’s job a bit easier… we respect God because God cares for us.
There is a correlation between what we do in this life and what happens in eternity. Jesus goes on in typical Jewish though patterns to repeat what he has said in a negative way in a positive one. He says that if we acknowledge him before humanity, he will acknowledge us before the angels of God. There is reward for those who are faithful. If we reject Jesus in front of people, Jesus will do that before the heavens.
Then we have this really tough saying of Jesus that those who speak words against the son of man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. I think it’s there to be reassuring, but I know many young people who have in youth group asked about this unforgiveable sin, worried they might inadvertently commit it. The first thing I always tell them is if you are even worried about then that’s good proof you haven’t committed it.
Scripture and history show that those who have rejected and spoken against Jesus have been welcomed back and forgiven. Peter who denied Jesus three times is reconciled with Jesus after the resurrection. ‘Peter do you love me, peter do you love me, peter do you love me… He is commissioned to be an apostle and a shepherd of God’s people. Saul stood at the stoning of Stephen and held peoples coats, so they could throw stones, he persecuted the church and yet on the road to Damascus meets the risen Jesus and his life is transformed he becomes Paul the apostle to the gentiles and writer of much of our New Testament. I could go on, many of Jesus greatest advocates started out anti-Jesus. Blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is an ongoing rejection of the witness of the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ. Pharaoh in the Old Testament is a biblical example, when God shows him his power it says that pharaoh hardened his heart again and again, till finally it says that God hardened pharaoh’s heart and he would not let the people go. It is encouraging for us because even if we buckle under pressure we know that the God who cares about us will and does forgive and restore. One of the big pastoral issues for the early church when it faced persecution was how they treated those who had buckled under and when demanded of them sacrificed to the roman emperor as God. Richard wurmbrand was a Christian leader who was imprisoned for many years and tortured in communist Romania and he talks of having to deal with meeting fellow prisoners who had denied the faith or even informed on him and his colleges and then later fallen foul of the communist regime. Some continued to deny Christ, others repented and returned.
Finally in the face of persecution, Jesus gives his disciples great hope, that the God who cares for them and who would pour out his holy spirit would be there with them and in situations of conflict and confrontation would give them the words to say. Now one commentator said quite rightly this is not a passage for teachers and preachers who don’t prepare well , rather it is when we find ourselves in situation where we are called on to defend our faith in Jesus Christ. I think the great example in scripture is Stephen in the book of acts whose response to the Sanhedrin, the religious court in Jerusalem is a wonder exposition of Israel’s history and how it all points to Jesus. It says that they could contend against him. The God who cares is the God who gives us his Spirit to be with us and enable us especially in times when we need that help.
friends don’t be afraid…Don’t be afraid… Jesus calls us to walk the cross road with courage and trust… Yup it’s not an easy road, as Jesus says in john 16:33 ‘in this life there will be trouble…yes we will face pressure to assimilate to compromise the gospel.. yes we will face the pressure of opposition and persecution … 'But take heart… Jesus has overcome the world'… do not fear, God cares, Jesus Christ came and lived and died that you may be forgiven and have new and abundant life… the Holy Spirit dwells with and within you… to empower and to guide, to teach and to lead. He will guide you home and welcome you, ‘well done good and faithful servant.