This message is based on a sermon originally preached on June 22, 2014, the first Sunday of Ordinary Time. It's been altered slightly for the web. The primary text is Matt 10:16-33. Accompanying liturgical texts are Jer 20:7-13; Psalm 69:1-18; and Rom 5:5b-19.
My family and I just moved from Alabama to Minnesota. (This was almost as drastic as when we moved from San Francisco to Alabama.) Changes like this don’t come without unsolicited warning: “You know it gets cold up there, right? I heard it snows seven months of the year!” It seemed as if folks were either offended or fearful that we were moving north.
Imagine if these warnings were all that we heard. That’d be sort of depressing, right? I’m relieved to say that our friends aren’t jerks; they didn’t leave the conversation on this chilling note of despair. The kinder and wiser friends gave advice for coping with cold. “Embrace it,” they said. “Treat it like recreation. The key to surviving the snow is to go outside and enjoy it.” People who had lived in the upper Midwest themselves shared fond memories of building snow men, camping in igloos, and going ice fishing. They recalled days when snow blanketed the countryside and bare trees scratched cloudless skies. These friends didn’t curse the cold – they gave us means to discover its pleasure and celebrate its beauty.
In Matthew 10:16–33, Jesus sends his disciples into a harsh environment. But like an encouraging friend, Jesus has words of wisdom that we, too, can use to navigate and survive the rough terrain of life.
Context of Ordinary Time
We are now in Ordinary Time, which is designated by the color green. Before we talk about what that means, let’s first take a minute to review where we are coming from; we Christians who follow the ancient worship pattern of the church calendar have just witnessed amazing things.
We entered into the solemnity of Lent, the gladness and alleluia of Resurrection, and the filling and equipping of God’s power on Pentecost. Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, when we recognized our God is an eternal relationship of love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Big things, right? But now what? Now you find churches decorated with green banners and clergy are wearing green stoles. This isn’t a terribly exciting color. It’s the color of grass, trees, and turtles. It’s an ordinary color, which is what we call this season: Ordinary or Normal. But, don’t be mistaken. Don’t confuse this with the season of the mundane or the season of boring. And certainly don’t confuse this as a season of rest. As we have seen in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus has other plans for us, doesn’t he?
Context of Matt 10
Our reading from Matthew’s gospel is Jesus’ sermon on mission. Jesus is preparing the apostles to be sent throughout Israel to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God. For reasons we can explore later, this isn’t a message that will be received warmly by the religious leaders.
This isn’t too unlike the task before believers today, which is why we find Matt 10 here in the lectionary reading right after Trinity Sunday. Like the disciples, we have beheld and pondered marvelous things. And now, it’s time to go out into the world.
God’s mission for us is to participate in his grand rescue plan of the human race. We know where to find cool waters. We have tasted the bread of life. We have met Jesus Christ. And like a coach preparing his team for the championship game, or a military general preparing his troops for battle, so our Lord has some instructions for us.
Mascots of mission
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).
Don’t miss the first few words of that verse. Jesus is the one who is sending us, and that thought cannot be lost. We the messengers cannot be understood apart from the one sends us. We’re about to tread into some pretty thick mud, which is why we must always keep in mind who the commander is: the Christ.
Jesus calls his disciples Sheep. Sheep are timid creatures. They’re cute, fluffy, bumbling animals – and they have no idea how to fight. If you were to choose a new mascot for your football or hockey team, chances are you wouldn’t want to be the Sheep. That wouldn’t strike fear into your opponents. Regardless, this is the mascot Jesus chooses for his followers. Welcome, Christians, to the band of sheep.
As for those in the world, Jesus refers to them as wolves. Jesus doesn’t lighten or even flatter unbelievers. They are called wolves. They are carnivorous, cunning, and fast. Wolves have sharp teeth, which they use to capture, cut, and eat sheep. Unlike sheep, there are plenty of sports teams who are called the wolves, and it’s the way in which Jesus chooses to describe those in the world.
Let’s pause from our passage for a moment. If you’re reading this and don’t consider yourself a follower of Jesus, you probably thought that it’s not very favorable to be called a wolf, right? “I’m not ravenous. I’m not trying to kill anyone!” Well, there are two things I say to you. First, know that this isn’t the only imagery to describe those who aren’t believers. In fact, Jesus elsewhere says that he is a shepherd who looks for the lost sheep. Or, he is like a poor widow, searching her entire house for a lost coin. Or, he is like a concerned father, always looking and waiting for his missing child to come back home. When reading the passage at hand, keep in mind the intended audience are his disciples. If you want to know what God thinks of you, turn to Luke 15 and see that you are of incredible value to God.
The second thing I want to tell you is this: Christians themselves are not exempt from wolf-like tendencies. St. Augustine says that within each one of us is a chained wolf, waiting and struggling for the opportunity to slip the chain and devour what it wants.
You see, friends, we all have a sheep and a wolf within. But for the present lesson, Jesus uses these symbols to emphasize the danger and threat which exists for his followers when they stand up and proclaim the peaceful arrival of the Jesus’ Kingdom.
Given the threat of beatings and death, Jesus tells his sheep to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. These two other animals shape our sheep-ness.
Like a serpent, we are to be crafty and careful with our words. Serpents know when to speak and when to stay silent. They also expect to be chased and stomped on – and Jesus is telling his followers to be just as cunning and cautious. But, we shouldn’t emulate the snake too much. We are not supposed to be manipulative or whisperers of lies. This is where the dove comes in.
Doves are symbols of peace. It is the dove who brought back the olive branch to Noah after the ark settled, informing him that the torrents of the flood were finally subsiding. Peace was on the horizon. Doves are graceful and sweet. They don’t attack anyone and are beautiful to watch. But again, we shouldn’t emulate the dove too much. They are simple minded creatures. We aren’t supposed to be naïve and easily fall into traps.
How does the serpent and dove shape our sheep-ness? Well, we need to be smart sheep. Smart sheep don’t confuse the voice of their shepherd with someone else’s. Smart sheep understand their mission and know how to carry it out. They also guard their innocence for the sake of honoring the one to whom they belong.
So, we’ve looked at the first verse of our lesson, and learned about Jesus’ mascots of mission, let’s now turn to the rest of this passage.
Severity of the World’s Oppression
“Beware of men,” Jesus says. We are to expect what Bruner calls the ABCs of persecution: abuse, beatings, and confrontations. The opposition comes from those far off: kings and governors, but sometimes, we experience opposition even from within our own families. Brother delivering brother. Father delivering child. This is a grim picture that perhaps some of you have experienced to some degree already.
That said, it’s difficult for people like you and me to get totally into the shoes of those ancient believers listening to Jesus’ words. This is ‘merica. One of our values is freedom of religion. It’s relatively safe to be a Christian here.
Two Paths of Sermons Like This
Typically in sermons that mention persecution, preachers go one of two different ways. In one camp are preachers who point out that we American Christians don’t proclaim the gospel enough to warrant real persecution. “If only we were as bold as those early Christians, then we would be hunted and slaughtered like sheep,” they say. This kind of rhetoric isn’t very helpful.
In the other camp are preachers who point out more subtle ways in which western Christians are actually being presently persecuted. They say that we’re teased in the workplace. We’re not allowed to pray in school anymore. Christian statues are removed from public display. Maybe we get passed up for a promotion. As you can see, this involves watering down the word persecution and is pretty offensive to sisters and brothers who actually are shedding blood on account of their faith.
Honestly, I think the answer to why we don’t experience the same kind of persecution as the early church involves a combination of both these two things. Is there room for modern, western Christians to speak up more about their faith? Do you and I sometimes keep our mouths shut when the Holy Spirit is burning within, compelling us to say something? Most definitely. We need to pray for boldness to act on the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
I also think this is where being “wise as a serpent” comes into play. Remember when I said no one really likes snakes? Well, being wise involves realizing that any sense of peace and acceptance Christians currently enjoy from the culture is a fleeting charade. Our present situation here in America is not normal. Yes, we are occasionally mocked, but there is a day coming when our lives won’t look too different than Christians living during the early church. Now isn’t the time to be naïve.
In fact, one only has to read international headlines to see that Christians aren’t so easily tolerated in other parts of the world. Christians around the world don’t read Jesus’ words in Matt 10 as mere hypothetical beatings and confrontations. Daily, our brothers and sisters are being brought before the rulers of China, Pakistan, North Korea, and Sudan. Being a Christian is a death sentence in many of those places, and it would be silly of us to think that the safety we experience here in America is permanent.
Promises of God
Yes, it’s true: when we do as Jesus did, and proclaim that God freely offers the forgiveness of sins, we are met with opposition. Darkness hates the light. Jesus’s words in Matt 10 contain three promises for those who face persecution.
First, we are promised the voice of the Holy Spirit. Through a deep mystery of faith, the Spirit of God indwells us at waters of baptism. When trials come, he provides the necessary words to face our foes. Some of you have experienced this firsthand. You were put to the test (either through suffering or trial), and the Spirit gave you exactly the right words to say so that God’s name was glorified. No one will ever be able to rob you of the peace you had in that tumultuous situation. The Holy Spirit is our greatest ally in the midst of trouble.
Second, you have the promise of the Father’s love. Jesus tells us that the Father knows when a sparrow falls to the ground. These simple creatures are loved by him. You have far more value to God than a sparrow – God even knows how many hairs are on your head. You are his son or daughter, and no matter how dark and lonesome your suffering is, your heavenly Father sees you, has compassion for you, and will make all things right.
Third, you have the promise of being acknowledged by Jesus. Your perseverance through trials pay off. When the persecution comes, when brother betrays brother, when blood is demanded, know that you have a comrade and brother in Jesus. This Jesus, the one who was betrayed by his disciples, tried before rulers, and killed on a cross, is the King of Creation. He will welcome you into his courts, declare your life to be his, and seat you at that great banquet of heaven.
Jesus warns his followers that the life of the Christian isn’t easy. Death, sickness, sin, and persecution plagues us all. But thankfully, the voice of the Holy Spirit, the love of the Father, and the companionship of the Son belong to those who faithfully endure through the cold and frigid terrains of life. These are deep truths, friends, that we must never let go. If you do not currently find yourself standing in difficult times, know that they aren’t too far off. But it is Jesus himself who sends you into the world, and Jesus will someday welcome you home.