“Wisdom and Living”

June 29, 2014


Deuteronomy 10:12-15

Matthew 10:24-39


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 Matthew:

“Whoever denies me before others I will deny before my Father in heaven.”

“I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”

“Whoever does 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 summer day.

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 see.

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 them.

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 and soul.”

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 abilities

the demand to stand with those who are oppressed or tortured,

the demand to be peacemakers in a world of violence,

the demand to speak the truth in a world that favors lies,

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 and follow.

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 suffering.

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 other ways:

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 life-giving.

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.