“Wisdom and Living”
June 29, 2014
I told those who were here last week
that in my nearly thirty years of ordained ministry, I have avoided preaching
from the Gospel of Matthew as much as possible—and I certainly haven’t tried to
preach from it in any extended manner, as I plan to do in the coming months.
Oh, sometimes the preacher just can’t
dodge this Gospel; for only Matthew gives us the Christmas story of the visit
of the Magi; only Matthew tells us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs
is the kingdom of heaven,” and gives us those other wonderful beatitudes and
the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.
Since I have a choice, however, I’ll
usually go with Luke or Paul or Isaiah or even Joel.
As you listened during the reading of
the second scripture lesson, maybe what you heard helped you understand why I avoid
me before others I will deny before my Father in heaven.”
“I have come not
to bring peace, but a sword.”
not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
This short section of Matthew’s
Gospel—Matthew’s good news—has enough
disturbing words that I could avoid it for several sermons. This is generally not what we want to hear on a beautiful
And yet these words might be just what
we need to hear.
So let us take courage together and jump
into the deep end of the Gospel.
And let’s start with that troubling
warning at the center of this morning’s text: “Do not fear those who kill the
body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear the One who can destroy both soul
and body in hell.”
Throughout the Gospel of Matthew there
is a strong call to courage in the face of distressing situations, a call to
bravery in following the way of Jesus Christ. Again and again the clear message
is: “Do not fear.”
At the beginning of Matthew, when Joseph
learns that Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant, he is told, “Do not be afraid.”
At the end of Matthew, when Mary
Magdalene watches in amazement as the stone is rolled away from the entrance to
the empty tomb, she is told: “Do not be afraid.”
And right here at the center of the
story, as Jesus sends his disciples to proclaim the good news that the realm of
heaven is drawing near; after he warns them of the opposition they will face
from religious leaders, from the government, and even from their families; he
tells them directly: “Have no fear.”
This message has strengthened feeble
hearts and enabled timid people to do great things for 2000 years. In Martin
Luther’s hymn the Reformers sang: “And though this world with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us, We will not fear…” The Civil Rights activists of
the 60’s sang, “I ain’t scared of your jail, ‘cause I want my freedom…” And
today we in the church find the courage to stand up for the rights of gay and
lesbian people in the face of opposition even from people in other churches
remembering those words: “Do not fear.”
Perhaps you have found the support you
needed in difficult times in your life in these words. I hope so.
And yet, as soon as those words are out
his mouth, without pausing for a breath, Jesus continues: “Rather, fear the One who can destroy both soul
and body in hell.”
We hear the word “hell” and our minds
start working overtime. Medieval pictures of eternally burning fires inform our
thinking and our imagination—but this is not what we find in scripture.
The Greek word that our Bibles translate
as “hell” is “Gehenna.” This was the name, not for some underground, after-life
destination, but for the fiery trash heap outside of Jerusalem. It was on the
southwest side of the city. Even today if you visit you can look out over the
valley there that is called Ge Hinnom.
Jesus exaggerates and the danger is that
we will take his exaggerations literally. Later images come to mind and we miss
the real message. Jesus speaks, as he usually does, not of some future “there and
then” but of the “here and now” of a smoldering garbage dump that anyone could
Jesus announces that the realm of heaven
is drawing near on earth through his ministry. He sends his followers out to be
signs that God is restoring the earth, bringing about a new creation. At the
same time, an opposite trajectory is also possible: Imperial Rome—with the
brutal power and insatiable greed of all great nations—threatens to turn all of
Jerusalem and all of Israel into a smoldering desolation. The message of Jesus
is not about burning in some future life but about living in ways in this life so that rather than the
destruction of empire the peace of God’s realm might be established.
And that is still our call today—by our
actions to avoid the hell, the destruction that is always a human option; by
our actions to be signs that the realm of God is near.
In a section of chapter 10 of Matthew
that I did not read this morning, Jesus tells his followers that the cost of
discipleship could be high. The religious leaders will persecute them. The
government will seek to take their lives. Their own family members will betray
Be afraid, Jesus says.
Be afraid, not of the religious
authorities, not of the political powers, not of your families.
Fear the God in whom you live and move
and have your being. Fear the God whose realm of peace and mercy is coming and
will not be thwarted.
By the time of Jesus it was a long
accepted truth: the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
For us today talk of the “fear of God”
takes us aback as much as talk of “hell,” doesn’t it? The fear of God and
threats of hell belong in other churches, certainly not in such enlightened
places as the Congregational United Church of Christ.
Hearing those words we imagine ourselves
cowering in the corner. I had a philosophy professor in college that brought on
just that response. Graduate students as well as we lowly undergraduates longed
to get the choice seat in the classroom—behind a potted palm where we might not
be noticed and therefore might not be called on. Oh, it wasn’t the fear of God
that George Kimball Plochman provoked in his seminar on Aristotle, but it was
fear—fear of coming up short, fear of not being ready, fear of judgment.
Maybe you were raised in a way that
emphasized the “fear of God” and such talk has done great damage to your spirit.
Maybe through seeking and prayer and study and action you have been able to
discover a God that does not cause fear. If that is the case, you might wish that I had avoided this text from Matthew.
Or maybe fearing God is so unthinkable
to you that these words of Jesus sound as nonsense.
The “fear of God” which is the beginning
of wisdom is not meant to keep us cowering in the corner, hiding from our
Creator. Nor is that the intent of Jesus.
We do better to understand “fear” as a
sense of awe and wonder in the presence of the Sovereign God who relativizes
all human wisdom and all human activity. This God is the mystery who keeps our
whole being—body and soul is how Jesus put it—in God’s eternal care.
When we understand what it means to fear
God, we do not run away, but we come before God as we are, trusting in God’s
goodness and mercy. Fearing God, we recognize that our ways are not God’s ways
and we seek as much as is possible to live in God’s ways of love and mercy, of
kindness and compassion. Wisdom begins when we recognize both who we are and
who God is and no longer confuse the two.
Awe and wonder mark the fear that is the
beginning of wisdom. If the God we fear is the One who keeps us—both body and
soul—from death, then we have true wisdom, the ability to use our knowledge
toward good and life-giving ends.
And let me suggest that that while the
fear of God is the beginning of
wisdom, it is only the beginning. The God who can destroy both body and soul is
also the God who has counted even the hairs on our head; this is also the God
who while caring for the birds of the air values our frail and fallible human
lives much more.
Cowering fear vanishes like the morning
mist in the presence of the God of compassion. As we grow in wisdom we grow in awareness
that God is indeed the love that we had hoped God was.
As we grow in wisdom, we hear the good
news spoken as early as those words of Moses: “What does God ask of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to
conform to all God’s ways, to love God, and to serve God with all your heart
God asks of you only what you are able
to do. Live in wonder before God. Follow in God’s ways. Love. Serve God in all
that you do with all that you are.
You can do that.
It’s been said of this congregation that
we are a “serious” church and that “What
might be called the seriousness of the church arises from a belief that
Christianity is demanding and a desire to understand its demands and to be
encouraged and supported in responding to them.”
We are a congregation that does not shy away from demands, a
congregation that seeks to know what God asks of us. A liberal, open-hearted
Christianity calls to the best in us as individuals and as a congregation.
Christianity is demanding.
With heart and soul we respond to
the demand to be wise stewards of our wealth and our
the demand to stand with those who are oppressed or
the demand to be peacemakers in a world of violence,
the demand to speak the truth in a world that favors
the demand to care for creation,
the demand to be a
congregation that welcomes all people.
You can do that.
Christianity is a demanding way of life. It requires much and gives even
more. And I suspect that you wouldn’t want it any other way.
With the wisdom born of the right fear of God, we can better understand
both the demand and the gift in the charge of Jesus that we take up the cross
These are words spoken to people who are already with Jesus, people—like
you and me—who sense that by the grace of God—and only by the grace of God—we
are accepted by the God who knows us and loves us.
For those who originally heard it, the demand to take up the cross could
have meant their death. The call to discipleship in the United States of the 21st
century rarely brings a death sentence with it. We live lives that are vastly
different from the lives of the early followers of Jesus. Still the cross
shapes our lives today.
The cross presents us with a choice: you can take it up or leave it. The
cross is not the result of genetics or aging or the mistakes we all keep making
or even the tragedies that fill every life. It is not what people usually mean
when they speak of a “cross to bear.”
The cross is taken up voluntarily. And it very well may involve us with
Seen in the light of Christ, however, the cross is not something that
destroys. It is that which makes us who we are—most fully ourselves. When Jesus
takes up the cross we see him as he really is: the revelation of God's complete
self-giving love, shown in suffering, a love that means forgiveness and life.
Understood in this way, the cross is not about martyrdom but about wisely
living beyond fear as we follow the crucified and risen Christ. It is about
courage in living the demanding faith that is Christianity.
We are followers of Jesus, not his imitators. The cross shows us to be
people freely forgiven by the love of God and—by God's grace—able to show that
same love in the often challenging and difficult situations in which we find
ourselves. Taking up the cross is about accepting those challenges and both the
threat and the opportunity they contain.
Yes, the cross does involve ridicule and hostility from those who follow
The ridicule of those who know that torture will get the
information we want from our enemies;
the hostility of those who can’t accept the basic human
value of certain people;
the ridicule of those who know that wealth is meant for
the wealthy and only fools share;
the hostility of those who find warfare the best way to
protect our national security.
In calling us to take up the cross, Jesus is telling us that we can grab
hold of even the worst that life can give and still be victors in the midst of
death. We will find the life that we seek.
So there is good news that comes to us from Matthew this morning.
The God of mystery and wonder holds us, body and soul, in eternal love.
Out of that love God asks things of us that are not only possible, but
And this is the wonder of our faith: the way of the cross, the way of
Jesus Christ, is the way of life.
Follow that way where it leads you and you will find the life you seek.