Welcome again to Whitewater – so glad you’re here in-person or online!
We are finishing up a series called Blessed(?) today, and boy, do we need it. As we move toward the end of this pandemic (hopefully!), the level of stress, anxiety, and human brokenness is the bigger threat right now. We can’t even get the Suez Canal freed up!
I read just this week that one surprising byproduct of the pandemic is it caused a spike in chipped and cracked teeth. Of the dentists surveyed by the American Dental Association Institute, 71% reported an increase in teeth grinding and clenching, and 63% reported an increase in chipped and cracked teeth in the last 12 months. (Probably came from watching the news every night for a year!) The principles of living a Blessed life could not be more timely and powerful.
Here’s a book I’ve been doing a deep dive in this week…Foxes Book of Martyrs. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s been so helpful in strengthening my faith. You may like it, too, especially if you love history. It tells the story of William Tyndale.
Tyndale was born in 1494 and was a well-educated scholar who bristled at the barriers in getting a readable translation of the Bible in the hands of common people. Up to that time, the Bible was literally chained to the pulpit and only the priest could read or understand it.
To have a Bible was a crime and Tyndale set out to fix that! He has to go into hiding in Germany to translate the New Testament in 1525 and was eventually betrayed by a friend, turned in for bounty, and subsequently put in prison in a castle near Brussels, where he suffered in a dark, cold cell for 18 months before standing trial. Ever been hurt by the institutional church? You and William Tyndale are in good company.
Tyndale was tried and condemned as a heretic and sentenced to death. One early October morning, just past dawn, he was led from prison to the stake with one last offer to recant - which he did not. Secured to a stake surrounded by brush and logs, Tyndale was heard to pray, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Then the executioner snapped hard on the rope, strangling Tyndale before the blaze consumed his body. So were the King of England’s eyes opened to Tyndale’s English Bible?
Indeed, they were. Just two years after Tyndale’s death, King Henry authorized the distribution of the Matthew Bible - much of it Tyndale’s work. In 1539, all printers and sellers of books were ordered by the king to provide a Bible in the English tongue to everyone. Tyndale’s dream and his last earthly appeal had come true.
Jesus' words in today’s Beatitude came true that day with William Tyndale. Matthew 5:10-12 says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
We have covered seven different qualities of a Blessed life as we come to this last Beatitude, each building on the other. Wonder why Jesus saved this one for last? I think he knew if a person truly possesses the first seven qualities, the result is going to be persecution.
Most of us will probably never be burned at the stake like Tyndale, or thrown into a lion’s den or dipped in wax (as some early Christians were) by the emperor Nero and then lit on fire to illuminate his Roman gardens, but there will absolutely be times we are mocked, slandered, and persecuted for our relationship with Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:12 says, "All that live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution." Sounds inevitable to me.
I’m not talking about pseudo persecution now, I’m talking about real persecution. It may shock or surprise you to know (because we’re pretty sheltered and spoiled in Greater Cincinnati) that there is active persecution occurring right now in our world. According to the ministry, Open Doors, in just the last year, there have been 4,761 Christians killed for their faith. Let that sink in. And, 4,488 churches and other Christian buildings have been attacked. Think of that!
We actually have Whitewater missionary partners working in Muslim countries, like Sri Lanka, India, Africa, and the Middle East, that are hostile to Jesus. We have brothers and sisters in Communist countries who are suffering, being opposed and oppressed, imprisoned, and even dying for their faith every single day. If you want your eyes open, just check out The Voice of the Martyrs at persecution.com.
In this text today, Jesus is bringing comfort to those then (and now) who have been persecuted because of the gospel. Jesus says - I have good news for you. You can rejoice over rejection. Jesus says this because the path of the cross is the road of suffering. (Sometimes you’ll hear well-meaning Christians say - just follow Christ, everything will be just fine!) You gotta have the crown of thorns before you have the crown of life. There is a blessing from following Jesus, but there is also a cost that comes with a commitment to Christ. In fact, if you’re not getting any pushback there is a problem.
A pastor was giving a sermon on Satan and how he tempts you. One church member told the pastor after the message, "The devil never bothers me." The pastor responded, "When two people are walking in the same direction, on the same road, they seldom bump into each other." If a Christian is not suffering any persecution, he is not confronting society - rather he is reflecting it!
First, Jesus gives some reasons for persecution…
Notice Jesus says the reward for persecution is because of "me", not because of you. Some Christians can be persecuted for the wrong reasons. They are obnoxious in their faith or have an air of self-righteousness about them. Maybe it’s because they’re behaving badly. I don’t think most of the Capital rioters were being persecuted for their faith. Perhaps you didn’t get that job, not because you were a Christian, it’s because you were an unqualified one! Sometimes we are persecuted and it has absolutely nothing to do with righteousness. So, make sure if someone is offended, it’s Jesus doing the offending and not you!
Other times, we do face legitimate opposition/persecution/discrimination because of our faith. Your spouse complains about you going to church every week or giving money to the church, and it brings pressure. An unethical boss believes your faith is interfering with your job performance or asks you to do something immoral or illegal. Friends you have that don’t have the same value system, may poke fun at you or not invite you to something because your Jesus values are not compatible with theirs.
Some of our wonderful students are being bullied right now at their schools because of their stand for Jesus. And, I have been increasingly alarmed about a cancel culture that seems to be persecuting anyone of faith who doesn’t agree with their enlightened world view. If you need an example of that, just google the online chatter about the Oral Roberts University basketball team and whether they should have been allowed to play in the NCAA tourney, and not just because they beat Ohio State either!
My friend, Caleb Kaltenbach (who has spoken here before) is preparing the church right now for the arrival of the ramifications of the new Equality Act making its way through Congress. Friend, I am predicating it will get harder to be a Christ-follower in the coming days, not easier. So, get ready.
If things don’t change, I predict churches in the not too distant future will have their tax-exempt status revoked, and pastors fined and even put in jail for simply preaching that the words of this book (the Bible) are true, and branded as intolerant and harmful to society.
Jesus gives some rewards for persecution…
Jesus says here, "Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice and be glad." What?! Seems counterintuitive. How can you be glad when you’re persecuted? The Bible is full of paradoxes, to live you must die, to receive you must give, the first will be last, the greatest will be the servant, and this is one of them.
Peter and John were thrown in prison by the religious leaders for preaching the gospel. An angel miraculously got them out and they went right back out and started preaching about Jesus. They arrested them again and this time had them flogged, but they did not consider it a disadvantage. In fact, it says this is Acts 5:41, "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name."
There is a weird kind of joy and fulfillment in carrying your cross for Jesus. Yes, there will be rewards someday in heaven, but there are real rewards right here and now on earth, too. You will see the kingdom and work of God displayed in your life, you will see how God uses struggle and pain for His glory and your good. You’ll see others find their way back to God because of your enduring testimony. The kingdom will come and be seen in your life powerfully.
That’s what happened in the early church. The persecution they received caused them to spread out geographically and advanced the mission of the church. What Satan meant for evil, God meant for good. Yes, there are burdens of carrying His cross, but also huge blessings never tasted by others unfamiliar with sacrifice – specific rights and rewards of being a 'Kingdom Kid.' And nothing welds you closer to Christ, like suffering for His name.
Jesus gives some reminders for persecution…
"For, in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you." It is comforting to know there are other people who have blazed the trail before you. These words convict and inspire me from Hebrews 11.
When you are persecuted, just know you’re in good company, and it will give you a feeling of confidence. Because we all need reassurance we’re not crazy for paying the price of following Christ. Even ministers need to be reassured from time to time. While nothing compared to other parts of the world, pastors in the US are under intense pressure and criticism right now.
If the statistics I’m hearing are correct, hundreds of churches are closing each month right now and hundreds of pastors are leaving the ministry every month, and COVID has accelerated that.
As an old samurai now, let me tell you something. I’ve seen a lot, and it’s never been harder. So, if I could take a moment and be vulnerable with you…you have no idea the amount of weight/criticism/pushback I receive leading this wonderful church to make needed changes and keep it healthy. (I once got an anonymous letter addressed to David, Son of Satan. Yea – that makes your day.) I’m not perfect and sometimes criticism is deserved, but sometimes it isn’t. Some people are mad at the world, or themselves, or the government, or God, and I just happen to be the one who represents Him.
Close friends have betrayed me and church members I served with have just walked away. I’ve lost count of the people who left the church for preaching strong Biblical truth in a compromised world. And we’ve had folks depart because they think we preach too much grace! It stings and it hurts. But let me say this, it’s worth it and I’d do it all over again because I walk in the footsteps of the nailed, scarred one who said – if they persecuted me, they will persecute you. And, just to be clear – if I’m forced to choose disappointing someone – it will be you, not Him.
Not long ago, I came back from a lunch appointment and there was a box on my desk...(it wasn’t ticking). Inside was a Gladiator helmet and a note...
Following Jesus starts out as fun, then becomes work, then becomes war. I think that’s why there is a parallel passage to this Beatitude in Peter’s first letter. He’s writing during the time of the gladiators when Nero was the emperor of Rome. Nero absolutely loved torturing Christians. At that exact point in time, Peter writes this to the church in 1 Peter 4:12-16...
"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in as much as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ you are blessed, for the spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name."
Peter here gives us four specific reminders. These are some next steps for you to apply this message this week as you suffer for Christ. When persecution comes your way:
- Recognize the source. Persecution comes from the fiery evil one, not God.
- Respond positively. Praise God that you bear His name.
- Realize it is temporary. Anything that occurs to you as a Christian, is not going to last forever. It will not always be this way. Those early Christians who died on Nero’s coliseum floor are living now in heaven. And, now we name our dogs Nero! 2 Corinthians 4 says, "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." So...
- Remember your reward. Revelation 2:10 says, "Do not be afraid of what you were about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for 10 days, be faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victors crown." Listen, never forget that God’s rewards are always better than Satan‘s bargains.
What a climb to the mount (The Sermon on the Mount) these last eight weeks have been. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and our prayer has been that it has led you to a more Blessed life. From celebrities, social media, and movies, the world is full of mixed messages about how to enjoy true happiness in life. But as we’ve returned back to the basics, we have found that Jesus simply, but powerfully, told us how. And His way is the Blessed way. We can remove the question mark!
As we close out the service today, there is an incredible story I want to share with you. It truly is one of the best examples of the church working right AND Jesus working right in someone’s life. As a persecuted church sent out to rescue other people, this makes the cost worthwhile. Watch Katie’s story.
We are so proud of Katie’s courage. I love how God takes what the Devil meant for evil and uses it for good. When I hear stories like hers, it makes me want to give and serve even more to be a Difference Maker!
Katie’s story is literally a story of going from death to life. And that’s the story we plan to celebrate next Saturday and Sunday on Easter Weekend with Graves & Gardens!